A falling cable has gashed open the Arecibo Observatory

Out of Contact

A falling cable has gashed open the Arecibo Observatory

Dish damage from the first cable that fell on August 10, 2020 (Courtesy Arecibo Observatory and University of Central Florida)

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the largest radio telescope in the world until 2016, is temporarily out of commission after a snapped auxiliary cable cut through the reflector dish early Monday morning. Although the cable was only three inches, it managed to slash through 100 feet of the 1,000-foot-wide dish.

The facility, which is managed by the University of Central Florida (UCF) and owned by the National Science Foundation, has been closed until the damage can be repaired.

“We have a team of experts assessing the situation,” said Francisco Cordova, director of the observatory, in a statement to UCF Today. “Our focus is assuring the safety of our staff, protecting the facilities and equipment, and restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible, so it can continue to assist scientists around the world.”

This isn’t the first time the National Register of Historic Places–listed Arecibo Observatory, built inside of a naturally convex sinkhole, has been damaged in recent years. The observatory was slammed during Hurricane Maria in 2017 when panels on the main dish were damaged by falling debris. Repairs were still ongoing as of August 10 when the errant cable snapped.

A panoramic span of the Arecibo observatory radio dish
The Arecibo Observatory’s 1000-foot-wide primary reflector dish in happier days (Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) /Wikimedia Commons)

Arecibo is a well-worn pop culture icon at this point. Since its completion in 1963—aside from searching for alien life, mapping the surfaces of other planets, and uncovering evidence of neutron stars—the observatory has been featured in a number of books, shows, and movies due to its distinct appearance and mission. That includes Carl Sagan’s novel Contact and the movie based on it, an X-Files episode, and several video games. Despite the observatory’s remote location, it welcomes about 100,000 tourists a year.

No cause has been determined for why the cable broke at the time of writing.